Thursday, 1 December 2011

The three stages of Christian life

As I said at the end of The Seven Sacraments, "mystagogy" is the stage of exploratory catechesis that comes after apologetics, after evangelization, and after the so-called "sacraments of initiation" (Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation) have been received. Baptism and Confirmation may be given only once. Christian initiation, however, is a continuing adventure, since the grace of these sacraments is the source of a new life of prayer that must continue to grow, if it is not to wither and die.

One of the greatest of Christian masters of mystagogy, who wrote under a pseudonym around five hundred years after the birth of Christ, is Dionysius the Areopagite, sometimes called Saint Denys. His influence on Christian mysticism, art, and architecture (through, for example, the school of Chartres in eleventh century France) has been immeasurable, his orthodoxy assured by such admirers and interpreters as Maximus the Confessor in the East and Thomas Aquinas in the West.

Dionysius divided the Christian Way into three phases, which he called purification, illumination and union, and linked these to the three hierarchies of angels, who were thought to assist in each of these three phases—to put it
another way, the active, inner, and contemplative life. The schema has been well tested over the centuries, and many saints have found it helpful. Of course, it remains only a suggestion, and you may find another approach more congenial. Perhaps for this reason, the Catechism does not refer to it very explicitly, even though it speaks of the purpose of creation as union with God the Holy Trinity, and the goal of the Incarnation as the divinization of man by grace (e.g. paras 260, 460).

Dionysius’s threefold classification reflects the Trinitarian structure of the Christian spiritual life. It also corresponds to other familiar triads that are explicitly discussed in the Catechism, such as the three Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and love (paras 1812-29). Faith corresponds to purification, hope to illumination, and love to union. Similarly, the Catechism talks about three Evangelical Counsels as providing a fundamental pattern of authentic Christian existence (paras 915, 1973, 2053). The counsel of poverty corresponds to purification, chastity to hope, and obedience (the integration of our will with God’s) to union.

Finally, the brilliant fourth part of the Catechism divides Christian prayer into three types: vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplation (paras 2699-2719). These, too, can be seen as corresponding to Dionysius’s three phases. Vocal prayer brings the body into line with the spirit by expressing the spiritual Word in voice and gesture. We can think of it as a kind of discipline that points us towards God. Meditation involves the imagination, the “eyes of the heart,” by which we penetrate gradually to the inner meaning of the words and images of faith. Finally, Contemplation is the prayer of silent union with God, a beginning or foretaste of the life of eternity.

Though the Christian religion does not depend on spiritual techniques, it does offer guidance and assistance in developing a life of prayer, and also in putting that prayer into action as a life of love. The encyclical of Pope Benedict, Deus Caritas Est, does just this. But one of the most beautiful passages on Dionysius’s three stages of Christian life was written by Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, in the final chapter of his last book, Memory and Identity. This commentary by a saintly pope can serve as a wonderful encouragement to us to set out on our journey in search of a “deeper Christianity.”

The Purgative Way, John Paul explains, is based on observance of the Commandments (see Matthew 19:16-17). It enables us to discover and live our fundamental values. But these values, he goes on, are “lights” which illuminate our existence and so lead us into the Illuminative Way. For example, by observing the Commandment You shall not kill we learn a profound respect for life. By not committing adultery we acquire the virtue of purity. This is not something negative, but bound up with a growing awareness of the beauty of the human body, both male and female. This beauty, he says, “becomes a light for our actions,” so that we are able to live in the truth.

By following the light that comes from Christ our Teacher, the Pope says, we are progressively freed from the struggle against sin that preoccupies us in the stage of Purification. We become able to enjoy the divine light which permeates creation. This perception of “illumination” is based on a conscious awareness of the world’s nature as gift: “Interior light illumines our actions and shows us all the good in the created world as coming from the hand of God.” The Illuminative Way therefore leads into the Unitive Way, realized in the contemplation of God and the experience of love. Union with God can be achieved to some degree even before death. And when we find God in everything, created things “cease to be a danger to us,” regaining their true light and leading us to God as he wishes to reveal himself to us, as “Father, Redeemer, and Spouse.”

Illustration: Angelic hierarchy by Hildegard of Bingen

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